To deal with her feelings of anxiety as a child, Ashanti Files was given a memo pad notebook and a pen by her mother. “Ashanti, you must write,” her mother said. “You can call it your diary, it’s yours, it’s private, but you need to write what you’re feeling.”
It wasn’t long until Files found herself doing her first poetry slam in third grade after her best friend, with whom Files attended school in the inner city of Chicago, encouraged her to join. In preparation, Files’ aunt helped her create a routine to perform along with a piece of advice.
“You don’t just read the poem,” her aunt said. “You make people feel the poem.”
Although she was fearful of being made fun of, Files performed her poetry routine. She placed top three in the slam.
“That really stuck with me,” she said. “Poetry doesn’t have to be these black words on a white page. Poetry can be fluid. Poetry can be moving.”
As part of the Open Scene Urbana event series, a Black Herstory Slam is being held on Feb. 1 at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center (IMC) to showcase black artists’ work in the community and highlight the black women’s experience.
Open Scene was created in collaboration by the IMC and the Urbana Arts & Culture Program, formally known as the Urbana Public Arts Program after it received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2016.
It initially was a project that offered workshops in theatre, storytelling, beat-making and hip-hop performance for marginalized youth and grew into multi-ethnic, multi-generational open mics for people to share their talent. The Black Herstory Slam will be Open Scene’s first showcase, differentiating it from its monthly open mic events.
Rachel Storm is the head coordinator of the Urbana Arts & Culture Program and principal organizer for the event.
“It really is designed to center black women poets and spoken word artists, storytellers and be a space for telling the stories of black women as part of the larger history of black folks in the United States, and particularly through the stories of black artists,” Storm said.
The event will be hosted by Dawn Blackman, a storyteller and steward of the Randolph Street Community Garden. It is set to feature performances and readings from local poets, local performers and leaders in the community.
DoMonique Arnold is a high school librarian and dancer who will be one of the poets performing at the Black Herstory Slam.
“Slam poetry is written with the intention that it is going to be spoken aloud,” she said. “It’s a way of really owning that this is what I wrote. I don’t really expect people to be in love with it or anything like that, I just happen to be sharing that experience because there might be other people out there who could have similar experiences too.”
Arnold often writes about black feminism, motherhood and relationships in her poems. She points to Elizabeth Acevedo, an Afro-Dominican poet, as one of her influences, who she saw perform last year.
“For black women to have a space where their voices are being uplifted especially when you have a marginalized identity where a lot of times your voice can be sidelined or you receive all these messages from society that your voice doesn’t matter,” she said. “To have a specific event where your voice matters, this is your time to reclaim your time.
The event is also part of the third annual Love For All Poetry Crawl in this month’s Urbana’s First Fridays event series hosted by the organization Imbibe Urbana. The organization works to “further the social and cultural narrative of Urbana,” according to Madeleine Wolske, executive director of Imbibe Urbana.
The Urbana’s First Fridays series focus on a specific theme each month that highlights what people can do in downtown Urbana. The Love For All Poetry Crawl features an evening filled with poetry events that will be happening at different venues in the area.
“I think it’s important to focus on and highlight art and your neighbors who create art,” Wolske said. “You don’t need to be a professional to enjoy a hobby or to share something you’re passionate about.”
Storm also explains the importance of hosting a Black Herstory Slam event in the Urbana community.
“I always think it’s important to have events that really talk about the significance of our diverse cultural histories in our community and create opportunities for deeper understanding and for the community to grow in its commitment to one another,” Storm said. “For us, it’s a huge celebration of the arts as always and Urbana has a really vibrant art scene.”
Shaya Robinson will also be performing poetry at the event. She is the host of S.P.E.A.K. Cafe which stands for Song Poetry Expressions Art and Knowledge which will also be co-sponsoring the event. S.P.E.A.K. Cafe has been holding events for over 10 years and Robinson has been hosting for the past three years.
“It’s a place where people can come and talk about social justice issues, talk about personal life and experiences,” she said. “It’s a place of healing, a place of family. A place for people who are just starting out or have been long-time performers to come to get practice and also to network with each other.”
Robinson said she finds inspiration from attending poetry events, going to the Krannert Art Museum or even at random times like while grocery shopping or driving. Robinson’s poetry relates to topics including relationships, social justice, love for others and self-love.
“Especially being a black woman, I think finding self-esteem and value in who I am is super important and writing about those things are important,” she said.
Initially, Robinson started writing poetry for herself in a journal. She took poetry classes and as she got older, her love for poetry grew. Performing poetry in front of people can be more intimidating than keeping it in a journal, but it can also help others in unforeseen ways.
“It definitely can be kind of a nerve-wracking experience because, for me, I write some of the deepest thoughts that I may not share with a lot of other people,” Robinson said. “It can be a little bit intimidating but also I realize that my gift wasn’t given to me for me to keep it to myself. It’s for the healing and the helping of others, so anytime I get nervous or anything like that, I remember that I’m not doing it for myself but for those that came and attended the event.”
In preparation of the Black Herstory Slam, Files was faced with the intensive task of choosing what to perform by looking through her old poems and thinking about the audience and context they will be performed.
“I’m looking at my poetry, ‘Okay, what celebrates the life of a woman? What tells the story of a woman?’” she said. “I found a couple of pieces that suit the bill, and I was also challenged to write more. What do I feel about being a woman now? Because the way I feel about being a woman now at 32 is very different than how I felt at 22, is very different than how I felt at 12.”
In February, Files will be launching her first poetry book titled, “Woven: Perspectives of a Black Woman.”
“The writing has never stopped,” she said. “The writing has saved my life and it’s uncomfortable for people to hear that side of my voice especially my family, but it’s uncomfortable to live some of the things that I’ve experienced, and being able to write about it has literally saved my life.”
The Black Herstory Slam will also allow people in the community to support and uplift one another through each other’s work. Files also gives credit to the Urbana Arts & Culture Program for providing a space for black women.
“They are transforming our community where art is appreciated and I’m so grateful for them for seeing that, ‘Hey, we’ve got this population that could also benefit from this opportunity. Let’s make something just for them,’” Files said. “It takes a lot of strength to be able to yield your power and give it over to a minority, to give it over to a poet like me and say, ‘We want your voice heard and we want it heard in a choir of other voices just like yours.’”
Arnold points to the importance of having events like the Black Herstory Slam and what she hopes they can contribute to the community.
“I think it’s important for any place to have events like this,” she said. “It builds community, you get to hear about all these different perspectives, you’re uplifting the artists in our community and it definitely sends the message that Urbana is not just a small town. We’re not just about the university, but we have a really thriving artistic community, so we should have more and more events like this to really support local artists, encourage them to do more work.”
The Black Herstory Slam is on Feb. 1 at the IMC in downtown Urbana. The showcase will run 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to all ages.